In her “Numbers” column in last month’s Wall Street Journal, writer Jo Craven McGinty provides a concise set of facts on pollution generated by gas-powered leaf blowers (That Ear-Splitting Leaf Blower? It Also Emits More Pollution than a Car, Dec 15, 2017; Page A2). These facts are certainly interesting but are not sufficient to explain the widespread distress associated with the use of these machines in communities across the country.
This has to do with the fact that the landscape service industry has grown dramatically over the past 15 years and is now armed with handheld gas-powered tools — leaf blowers, edgers, trimmers, and cutters — to perform all tasks once done manually. Over 40 million pieces now operate in the US – one for every 8 Americans. The vast majority are powered with inefficient 2-stroke engines that emit ozone-forming exhaust and fine particulates, not to mention the pesticides, fertilizers, etc, they disperse into the air.
Emissions from the machines are regulated at the point of manufacture by the EPA. The ways in which they are used are not. The outdoor power equipment industry recommends only one gas leaf blower be used at a time, never at full throttle in residential areas, and not for moving dust. But, this is rarely the case. Crews operating up three to five blowers at a time are common. The smell of fumes is pervasive and the noise levels literally deafening.
The article states that one commercial blower run for one hour produces the same amount of pollution as a Toyota Camry driven 1,100 miles. If we do the numbers, a crew running four or five blowers at a time for four to six hours produces the same amount of pollution as two or three Toyotas driven for a full year. But unlike cars, leaf blowers do not drive away. That means all of that exhaust stays in place whether its our backyards, playgrounds, or retirement communities. And the exhaust is harmful – the labels on the machines make this clear.
Health risks related to ozone and fine particulate pollution include heart disease, lung disease, cancer and premature death. Mounting research suggests even short term exposure can be harmful. Notably, the Massachusetts and New York State medical societies have joined organizations such as the American Lung Association, California Air Resources Board, US Centers for Disease Control, and US EPA in recognizing the health risks associated with the pollution from these machines and recommending healthier, more sustainable alternatives.
Like electric vehicles, lithium battery powered hand tools offer an important solution for commercial operators. They eliminate toxic exhaust at the source and reduce noise. And, as for that “ear-splitting noise” – well that’s another “Numbers” story we hope to see in a future issue of the WSJ.